Film Brief: Isle of Dogs

Like most Wes Anderson films, Isle of Dogs bears weakness in its plot, especially as the film wraps.  But he brings a lot more to the table than straight plot.  Chris Klimek, NPR:

…by the time Anderson’s animators show us a meal of sushi being prepared in meticulous close-up, I was ready for any trick Anderson wanted to perform for me.  Isle of Dogs takes Best in Show.

Wes Anderson’s movies are event films, and no less this time.  Don’t miss it.  8/10

Comparison Notes: all other Wes Anderson films, Life is Beautiful

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P.S.  Bryan Cranston was on the Colbert show, and brought a model of his character “Chief.”  He demonstrated what it took to make this movie, painstakingly nudging the models one whisker at a time, photographing each step.  Isle of Dogs must be the ultimate stop-motion film.  He said the film took FOUR YEARS to make.  That clip included below.


A Double-Splish, A Bigger Splash

Top: “A Bigger Splash” by David Hockney; Bottom: A Bigger Splash, currently in theaters

There will be two “Bigger Splash” movies this year.  One of them is a documentary on David Hockney, the great Los Angeles-based artist.

The movie A Bigger Splash takes on a theme I’ve seen in a few indies lately: that of vacations going south.  Force MajeureThe Two Faces of January, and The Loneliest Planet are examples of this concept in recent years.  Terror flicks like I Spit on Your Grave or Hostel also technically fall under this category, though we’re talking there about a very different type of film, obviously.  It’s a great storytelling tool because it allows ordinary people to be placed out of their element, out of their comfort zone.  Vacations allow ordinary people to face extraordinary circumstances.

A Bigger Splash - text block


Force Majeure was the best at this, in the psychological drama side of the bucket.  One of the problems with A Bigger Splash is that it is not completely confident of what it is trying to be.  As a psycho-sexual drama, it had me pretty well gripped for about the first three-quarters, at which point it took the inevitable turn as given away in the trailer — and suddenly became a completely different and much more mundane picture.  Because of this, I was going to render a marginal thumbs-up, but the film did stick around in my head just long enough for a 7/10.

Comparison Notes: besides the films mentioned above, Swimming Pool (2003) — one of those movies I’ll have to see again to post on; La Cérémonie (highly recommended)


Hail, Caesar! - poster alt

Not to sound lame-brained, but Hail, Caesar! is the most literal example of a FEEL GOOD MOVIE in recent memory.  I was loathe to go see it, based on the ads & trailers.  I made avoiding it something of a quest, Coens be damned!  Plus I had this running theory of Clooney + Coens = STAY AWAY!  But it seemed to have legs.  After a month or so something snapped; I broke down and headed with great gusto to the cinema.

Hail, Caesar! - text blockAnd wow do the Coens know how to put together a movie.  Hail, Caesar! is a thoroughly entertaining, sumptuously gorgeous picture made by absolutely consummate filmmakers at the top of their game.  My only fault was a lack of any real dramatic peril: this is not Fargo or No Country for Old Men.  Otherwise we’d be talking 9-territory; as it is, on the high end of 8/10.

Sit close to the big screen for this one — it’s a visual treat, I found much more so than even The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Comparison Notes: Recommended: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Chinatown, Mulholland Dr.; Not recommended: Inherent Vice, L.A. Confidential

Film Brief: Trainwreck

Trainwreck - poster med

A nice surprise: all of a sudden I’m a LeBron James fan!  But not for his hoops — he’s a good and likable actor!  Playing himself, anyway.  That was one of the modes of success for Trainwreck — all the smaller roles and cameos.  Also, a nice long-haired hair turn for Tilda Swinton.  And let’s hear it for more Brie Larson!

If Trainwreck were a little more taut, and made me feel more empathy toward the title character (she’s not really such a trainwreck), we’d be talking 8+.  We might even be talking Obvious Child territory.  But as it is, a nice, fun little rom-com, but ephemeral.  Nothing here to stick around.  7/10

Bravo, Epix!

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS that a concerted effort is being made to dissuade consumers from paying for conventional TV services, e.g. cable and satellite.  The first shot across the bow was the NBC Hollywood Sessions - text blockpurchase of Bravo, and NBC’s subsequent dismantling of Bravo.  At one time Bravo was an excellent channel, providing film and performing arts programming that bested PBS.

Inside the Actors Studio was born of this period, and I remember a fantastic profile of Björk (tag-lined “People We Like”) which was done while she was recording Homogenic.  Apparently Inside the Actors Studio remains on Bravo, though I hardly see the point.  First of all it is broadcast so rarely that I haven’t seen it in years, and secondly it’s so discordant with the dreck that occupies the entire Bravo lineup that it can do nothing but suffocate.  That various “real housewives” are now considered celebrities is a sad commentary about our society.

The next shot hit square-on when IFC and then Sundance renounced commercial-free indie movie programming and replaced it with decidedly inferior programming filled voluminously with advertisements which completely ruin any worthwhile movie that finds passage.  That was a sad devolution, as quite a number of great little indies I discovered on those channels.

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Nothing has arrived that can fully take the place of IFC, Sundance, and pre-NBC Bravo, but as with any vacuum new options have popped up.  The biggest is streaming media.  Browsing for films using iTunes movies via Apple TV is fun.  My watch list has grown to hundreds of films, I reckon — I just wish I could commit to watching one every now and then.

And there are new movie channels, though as more of us become cord-cutters the longevity of said channels may be in doubt.  One of the best is EPIX, which I posted on a while back regarding their showing of Nebraska and the Altman biopic.  Well I was a little surprised when I ran across a show late last night called Hollywood Sessions, a very dignified interview program featuring Emma Stone, Tilda Swinton, Laura DerEpix - Hollywood Sessions capturen and Patricia Arquette — a round-up of best supporting actress nominees for 2014.  All were seated about a coffee table and asked questions in turn by two journalists.

Well the spirit of early Bravo was swept right back to me!  I was only able to watch a few minutes before heady-to-beddy, but I was very pleasantly surprised.  Hollywood Sessions include four other programs, with 2014 candidates for best actor, actress, supporting actor and director.  EPIX has made each program available online in a friendly, commercial-free format, or check your listings.

A Ride-Along with Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer - poster

Imagine a Mad Max mix-up of Metropolis, The City of Lost Children, Speed, Runaway Train, Cube and The Wizard of Oz, and you might form an idea of what Snowpiercer is about. On the other hand, it’s not so abstract as all that.  David Edelstein (New York Magazine) writes with greater clarity on this movie than I am now able:

O dystopia, you have o’erwhelmed our imaginations, transformed our cinemas into charnel houses, our movies into nihilistic dirges.  We drink in your ecocatastrophes, your post-apocalyptic death matches, your blood-soaked chasms between haves and have-nots.  Now, at last, comes a fun dystopian sci-fi epic — a splattery shambles with a fat dose of social satire and barely a lick of sense.  It’s Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, which must be seen to be disbelieved.

Snowpiercer - still Tilda Swinton

Snowpiercer features an exuberant performance by Tilda Swinton

The South Korean director’s first English-language film is based on a good French graphic novel called Le Transperceneige and set on a long, long, long train, which carries the frozen Earth’s only survivors after an attempt to stop global warming has backfired spectacularly.  The problem is that the population is cruelly subdivided.  The fatted Richie Riches lead lives of luxury in the front half of the train, where they pay homage in speech and song — much as North Koreans were forced to sing “No Motherland Without You” to their Supreme Leader — to the “Eternal Engine” and its inventor, Wilford, whom few have ever seen. But you don’t want to be stuck in the back, where the ragged denizens — many missing limbs — have only protein mush to eat, and where they have to watch helplessly as, seemingly at random, soldiers drag off their children.

And so what follows is a rather straightforward film about a revolt of the underclass, which can be executed in only one way: a direct linear push to the front of the train.  As the train pierces the snow, the rebels pierce through one bulkhead after another, moving further forward in the train while experiencing one stratum after another of the encapsulated core-sample which represents all of humankind.

Problem was, as Edelstein points out, it too often doesn’t make sense — there are more leaps in logic than I usually like to bear with.  A 97% Tomatometer score among top critics shows that Snowpiercer has earned nearly universal praise.  I liked it too, but am hardly gaga.  It certainly kept me engaged — until the end sequence where it got bogged down — but it could not escape its literal and figurative one-dimensional simplicity enough to overcome my incredulities.  Still though, I do applaud the great effort, concept and special-effect visuals wrought by this sci-fi indie.  6/10

New from Jarmusch: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive - poster large

S E H R  L A  N   G    S     A     M.  PACING has always been an important aspect of the films of Jim Jarmusch.  And pacing is what Only Lovers Left Alive needs a cold hard injection of.  I have no problem with a movie taking its time, but there’s a difference between taking your time and being downright lethargic.  I take it that lethargy is a theme of this vampire tale, but for large swathes of the movie I wished that everything could just speed up.  Having said that, I liked this movie.  I think the pace could be picked up, but at the same time it’s not particularly draggy.

Only Lovers Left Alive - text blockAnother problem: it’s never very dramatic, or romantic, or comic — but I suppose that too would be missing the point.  These vampires are decidedly disconnected, and Jarmusch I think wants to emphasize that fact — even if it risks disengaging the audience as well.  For positives, I liked the original music, and the atmosphere and vibe of the film, and the little chips of humor.  The settings and location shooting in Detroit and Tangier fit very nicely, and are properly exploited.  The movie is greatly enlivened exactly when needed when the sister (Mia Wasikowska) visits.  And finally, though Tilda Swinton is not always my favorite actress, she is perfectly cast here.  She really gets the whole vampire gig.

So a mild recommendation — though as I reflect on it now, my memories grow fonder.  That vague quality of vibe is difficult to define, and even more difficult to achieve — though I reckon the music has a lot to do with it.  Only Lovers Left Alive achieves that great vibe.  Another way to put it: it’s got some mojo.  Mojo, or vibe, should not be under-accounted for.  It’s a shame that pacing and plot don’t live up to the vibe.

Somehow I felt like this was a good version of last year’s Much Ado About Nothing, but I’m not sure why I draw a connection.  Only Lovers Left Alive exhibits a trend of Jarmusch films becoming less and less recognizable as Jarmusch films.  I hope he can return to form, because if not he’s simply past his prime.  The trailer’s a good tell on this one: if you like it, you’ll like the movie.  6/10

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Comparison Notes: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, Immortal Beloved (title only), Dead Man, every vampire movie ever made